Black Lives Matter Everyday

Balanced Perspectives

I am re-sharing a post I wrote in January for a third time because it’s relevant to the current moment when conversations are happening around what some call structural and systemic racism and others call system-wide disadvantages.

Drawing attention to identifiable disadvantages faced by Black people and other people of color is not an attempt to signal my virtue or to protect myself from the mob by telling them I’m an ally with their cause. Rather, it’s an attempt to share my own understandings around the disparities faced by Black Lives and other lives of color in relation to my decades of experience as an educator in urban environments where the majority of students are students of color and where many schools I taught in have had a majority of teachers of color.

The disparities are real, and if the way I present them can be helpful in getting more people on board with understanding these disparities, then I want to do that.

Though the original post I’m sharing below doesn’t explicitly mention police brutality against Black people or other people of color, it does establish the argument that there are indeed extra hurdles that need to be jumped through by those who are not born into networks of advantage where certain discourses are spoken, taught, written, and practiced and where access to networks of support and networks of power are immediately available. A large percentage of white people are born into worlds where Standard American Discourse (the language that gives you access to successful educational achievement and networks of power) is the norm, and worlds where their own culture is treated as the default and is mirrored back to them in their schooling and in the culture at large.

The perspective I am presenting here is one that is in alignment with the practice of Critical Pedagogy -the educational wing of the Critical Theory approach to analyzing systems. It is an approach to structural analysis that, in many instances, offers interesting helpful observations about imbalances even if the interpretations of those imbalances and proposals for correcting those balances are not always accurate or effective.

Where I part ways with Critical Theory -and especially Critical Race Theory- is that I do not see these disparities through a conspiratorial lens or as the result of colluding forces vying for power; rather, I see them as lazy artifacts of a system that by default was set up to serve the majority -something that has gone on since the beginning of civilization itself.

That we should change and adapt these systems to better serve those left to the margins without compromising high standards is not a question for me.

It’s also not a question for me whether or not some groups have higher instances where individuals have surrendered to a life of “survival choices” partly due to their lack of access to education and other institutions and to networks and discourse communities that could have given them an equal advantage to that of their white counterparts.

The fact that these survival choices can often include the commission of crimes is also not a question for me…. white, black, hispanic, male, female, trans, etc. Anyone who is drawn to break laws on any level is bound to have more interactions with the police, and people born into networks of disadvantage who then go on to commit crimes when face with less opportunities to thrive are bound to have more of those interactions. Given some of the disparities in our country’s systems, this at least partly explains the statistically disproportionate killing of black people by police. in addition to other factors, including racism. And the more interactions with the police, the more that can go wrong.

We all have to make sense of all this from where we are, using our own experiences and our own moral and observational faculties. As an educator, I can best speak from the education angle, and I can say with confidence that in general, people of color in this country do not have the same level of advantages in our eductional institutions, our curriula and in the distribution of our resources.

This gap of equality of opportunity is what am exploring below in the context of standardized testing and other contributing factors.

*****

“Why Culture in the Design of Standardized Tests Should Be Considered”

*Originally posted, January 11, 2020

I was going to respond to a thread about IQ tests and how cultural bias in the tests designers (like so many tests) can impact the results depending on the cultural background of the test-taker.

It wasn’t a good time for me to go down a rabbit hole, so I thought I’d write about it here.

I’d like to demonstrate for a moment how some standardized tests are experienced by some black students, Latino students, and other students who don’t come from home and neighborhood environments that speak the same discourse (or have the same cultural references) that the tests are designed with.

[NOTE: Contrary to the beliefs in certain strands of social justice ideology (e.g. Critical Theory), I don’t believe the inequality of opportunity represented in the test designs is intentional or nefarious or the result of a dominant group’s conspiracy to stay in power. I think it’s best to set aside that sort of suspicious thinking and get down to the business of understanding the different linguistic and cultural hurtles some groups may encounter in certain schooling contexts and why it’s important to make adjustments with these variables taken into consideration].

To demonstrate what this might be like, I have constructed a sentence in Spanish that is grammatically correct and that makes perfect sense on its own linguistic and cultural terms.

I then wrote out its exact English syntactical translation to demonstrate the difficulty of reading and answering questions that are written in a discourse and with cultural references that are different from our own.

Here is the literal syntax translation I came up with:

“Upon me placing depressed at cause of that some persons have the birds in the head when contemplate the legitimation of the examinations of IQ.”

It’s a simple sentence, so chances are good that you’d figure it out, even if you did not speak the same level or pattern of discourse as those who created this sentence. But imagine if the weird syntax, sequencing and culturally specific references were sprinkled throughout the whole test. You would be exerting a little more mental effort and might perhaps experience more fatigue than those for whom these syntactical pattens and cultural references are intimately known and immediately recognizable.

If you are a native speaker of English or even a person who was raised in a household that speaks Standard American English or Academic English, and you came across these types of sentence constructions on a test, it is reasonable to say that your results will likely be compromised by your lack of immediate, effortless access to the syntax and cultural references in the sentence.

Here is the Spanish version:

“Me pongo deprimido a causa de que algunas personas tienen los pájaros en la cabeza cuando contempla la legitimación de los exámenes de IQ.”

And here is the modified English translation I came up with:

“I become depressed when some people go nuts when they contemplate the legitimacy of IQ tests.”

Even the word contemplate isn’t a perfect translation. It’s more likely that people go nuts [have birds on their head] when they consider all of the factors that determine the legitimacy of IQ tests.

Another interesting factor is that a Puerto Rican student might never have heard of the expression “tiene las pajaros en la cabeza”, which is a Central American expression, which literally means “birds on the head” but figuratively means “has mental illness” or “is crazy”.

It gets even more interesting when you consider that when Central Americans say “birds on the head”, they really mean “birds on YOUR head”, as the “you” is often understood (but not directly spoken) in many Spanish language constructions. A deeper investigation into the linguistic barriers would reveal that body parts are often spoken of without the appropriators “my”, “his” or “their”, which brings in an entirely new layer of inquiry into the relationship between language, the body and the conception of the physical self for cultures that speak a different language or have different linguistic constructions within the same language as the language (or discourse) that is spoken and written on the standardized test.

So, the political “Left”, which includes an educational component that strives for what we educators call “cultural literacy” has something to offer in the examination of where we might be marginalizing whole groups of people by not acknowledging -and adjusting for- the differentials that exist between majority/dominant groups’ access to certain discourses and cultural referents includes in some standardized tests and the lack of these portals of access experienced by minority groups and all those who do not speak the same discourse in the household.

And, when some tests are used to identify intellectual competency, then the lack of access to the “dominant discourse” becomes a troubling problem because then we are incorrectly assigning a level of intrinsic competence and even intelligence, that is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate.

We could call this “systemic racism”, but, where I part with the “woke” ethos is the more practical approach of simply naming a pattern, pointing to its outcomes and potential moral error, and advocating for a policy change.

So, there is a good deal of truth to the idea that privileged access to certain discourses can determine access to equal opportunity, which then impacts the life circumstances and outcomes in the lives of individuals who belong to groups who have considerable distance from the majority’s discourse.

Hopefully, over time, a more emotionally moderate and intellectually rigorous approach to examining education policies and equity issues (like the one I’m modeling here) can be recognized, embraced and practiced by us all.

Societal harmony, justice and peace may very well depend on it.

* This writing is Part I of a 2-part series. The other piece is called “Support Black Lives. Reject Racial Essentialism” and can be found here:

http://socialjusticeevolution.org/2020/06/08/reject-critical-race-theorys-idea-of-racial-essentialism/